France's president Emmanuel Macron announced the death of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara's leader late Wednesday, calling Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi's killing "a major success" for the French military after more than eight years fighting extremists in the Sahel.
Macron tweeted that al-Sahrawi "was neutralized by French forces" but gave no further details.
Adnan Abou Walid al Sahraoui, chef du groupe terroriste État islamique au Grand Sahara a été neutralisé par les forces françaises. Il s’agit d’un nouveau succès majeur dans le combat que nous menons contre les groupes terroristes au Sahel.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) September 15, 2021
It was not announced where al-Sahrawi was killed, though the Islamic State group is active along the border between Mali and Niger.
So, who al-Sahrawi is and what his death means in a larger perspective.
al-Sahrawi was born in Laayoune, Western Sahara into a wealthy trading family that fled the city for refugee camps in Algeria.
He joined the Polisario Front, a rebel national liberation movement by the Sahrawi people (of the Sahara) claiming the Western Sahara, which had been controlled by Spain, and Mauritania, and received military training.
In 2010, he joined the Katiba Tarik ibn Zayd, a unit of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
It is reported that in 2015, al-Sahrawi declared his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and formed the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
Most wanted jihadist in the Sahel
al-Sahrawi's militia has been highly active in the border region linking Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
He claimed responsibility for the October 2017 attack in Niger that killed four US military personnel and four people with Niger’s military.
In Washington, where the death of the four soldiers was very badly received, a price of $5 million was put on his head.
In August 2020, al-Sahrawi personally ordered the killing of six French charity workers and their Nigerian driver.
It is reported that al-Sahrawi imposed Sharia law in the region, making veils compulsory for women, enforced the cutting off of hands for thieves, and banned music, sport, alcohol, and tobacco.
Mohamed Ould Mataly, now deputy of Bourem, remembering the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara's leader, was quoted as telling The Africa Report in 2020, that "he was withdrawn, focused, speaking only for brief interventions — preferably in Arabic, even though he speaks French".
al-Sahrawi, according to people who have seen him in the past, was particularly vigilant, always armed and obsessed with his security. He never used a telephone and never made any videos or audio recordings. The vast majority of his fighters have never seen him.
The Africa Report in a 2020 feature on the Islamic State leader said that when he had to move around, he did so on a motorbike, and without an escort so as not to attract attention.
Reacting to his death, French defense minister Florence Parly tweeted, "This is a decisive blow against this terrorist group. Our fight continues."
Adding on, President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, "The nation is thinking this evening of all its heroes who died for France in the Sahel in the Serval and Barkhane operations, of the bereaved families, of all its wounded. Their sacrifice is not in vain. With our African, European and American partners, we will continue this fight."
The French military has been fighting Islamic extremists in the Sahel region where France was once the colonial power since the 2013 intervention in northern Mali. It recently announced, though, that it would be reducing its military presence in the region, with plans to withdraw 2,000 troops by early next year.
News of al-Sahrawi's death comes as France's global fight against the Islamic State organisation is making headlines in Paris. The key defendant in the 2015 Paris attacks trial said on Wednesday that those coordinated killings were in retaliation for French airstrikes on the Islamic State group, calling the deaths of 130 innocent people “nothing personal” as he acknowledged his role for the first time.
With inputs from agencies